From Silicon Valley to Washington, privacy is a hot-button issue in the digital age: The more data we give to giants like Facebook and Google, the more advertisers have access to our personal lives, and the more public concern grows.
What to do with all this data is a question that has plagued privacy advocates and stumped government officials. But solutions are coming from companies like Mozilla: Its Firefox browser boasts 400 million users, and has become a powerful leveraging tool. Recently, Mozilla launched "Do Not Track," a tool that gives consumers some control over how much data they're willing to share with third parities; other browsers such as Google Chrome and Microsoft's Internet Explorer followed suit with similar privacy services.
Still, there's a nagging concern that private entities won't fully solve the problem of online privacy. Some have suggested that public sector regulation is inevitable—just look to legislation introduced by Congressman Bobby Rush and pro-privacy stances taken by Senators Al Franken and Chuck Schumer. Is government the solution? No, says Mitchell Baker, chairwoman of the Mozilla Foundation. In an interview last week with Fast Company, Baker argued that, today, regulation would not be able to quell our privacy concerns.
"We need to technology to solve this issue—I'm 100% sure of that, whether or not we need government," Baker says. "Even if you had the perfect regulation today, without the technology to implement it, it will be imperfect tomorrow."
Baker is a stalwart of user control and personal privacy, but, as she explains, regulation of the Internet—and indeed, the government's proper role in the open web—is a complicated issue. "I'm smack in the middle of all of this, and it's hard to imagine legislation right now that we would know how to implement, or know what to do with," she says. "And we're trying as hard as we can."
"Is there some piece of legislation that could even be a good tool?" she wonders. "The answer is, well, there might be, but we don't know what legislation would like look like that would be helpful."
And if the experts at Mozilla don't know the answer, it's doubtful that "experts" in government, such as Bobby Rush and Al Franken, have cracked the code. For one thing, it's unclear whether or not the government could even keep up with regulating such a fast growing and changing entity like the web—even if the ideal legislation existed. Earlier this year, in competing op-eds, Google's Marissa Mayer battled with The New York Times over the issue of "search neutrality," essentially the question of whether the government should have some oversight of how Google's algorithm answers queries. As Mayer rightfully pointed out, there's no way the molasses-moving public sector could ever hope to keep pace with a tech powerhouse like Google.
Baker largely agrees with that stance on the issue of privacy. "It continues to be a very tricky question, but no. The government can't keep up," she says. "We have this fundamental piece of infrastructure—the Internet—that in many ways is more fundamental today than roads. Building a whole infrastructure to monitor, and deal with compliance—it's just difficult."
"It's why we say we need technology to solve this issue," she says. "It's why Mozilla exists."
[Image: Flickr user Sunside]